Believe you can be successful

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Nearly 20 percent of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s students are the first in their families to begin the journey of earning a college degree.

But they aren’t alone. Hundreds of Carolina faculty and staff, including members of the University’s leadership team, understand the struggle – and excitement, and accomplishment.

Because they were first-generation college graduates, too.

“On our best day, what UNC does is bring together talent and give that talent the opportunity,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James W. Dean, Jr., who was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1978. “The most important thing is to know that you can do it. If you’ve been accepted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you have the capability to be successful here. Never doubt that.”

From Dean and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Winston Crisp and faculty members including Rumay Alexander and Brian Hogan to men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and head football coach Larry Fedora, many of today’s University leaders experienced the same uncertainty and obstacles as today’s first-generation students — starting with the initial hurdle of applying.

Some, like Fedora and Board of Trustees Chair Dwight Stone, knew at a young age they were college bound. It had become a standard in their homes.

“As a kid, it was kind of what was expected from my parents — that I was going to college,” Fedora said. “That’s all I ever remember.”

For others, it was a slower and later decision. Mabel Miguel, clinical professor at UNC Kenan-Flager Business School, for example, was 26 when she began taking night classes at New York University to earn her degree.

Williams didn’t consider the option until his junior year in high school, when his basketball coach and history teacher told him a degree was required to become a coach.

“I knew I was going to have a different path than my buddies or my relatives,” he said.

Regardless of their path to college, once they arrived on campus, there were challenges. Between making friends and learning how to succeed, the obstacles sometimes were daunting.

“I came from my high school graduation class of 82, so coming to Carolina was a major experience in my life and I never will forget the first day my parents dropped me off at the university and I was alone,” Stone said. “I knew of very few people here.”

But with determination and hard work, many now-faculty and now-staff members reached their goal: a meaningful college experience culminating at graduation day.

And they want all students to know that they can reach that goal, too.

“I don’t think there is a replacement to hard work,” Miguel said. “You can overcome many things if you just focus and you work hard. That’s the way that I did it and it served me well.”

Students who are the first in their families to attend college can find support through the Carolina Firsts program and Thrive@Carolina, which fosters a culture of success for all students.

And to learn more about Carolina’s faculty, staff and leadership who were the first in their families to graduate from college, visit

“There are successful people all over the country and all over the world who are first-generation students here at the University of North Carolina,’’ Dean said. “These students can be incredibly successful. There are people who have become lawyers and doctors, people who have become social workers, people who have started businesses in other countries. It’s because of what the University has provided them in terms of opportunities. They can really do anything they want to do.”

By Brandon Bieltz